Marriage an oldest institution of human society, which has assumed today's shape from its original ancient form over the ages. The system of marriage has been given institutional shape mainly through religions. All rules and regulations regarding marriage have been scripted in religious stipulations. Since ancient times, provisions of religious scriptures formed the basis of social law in Bengal; religious laws have governed the society and family. Side by side with religious and state laws, the folk culture has also influenced marital life in different ways.

Although the need for marriage in case of both males and females is recognized, it has been considered as the prime attainment and ultimate justification of life since the Vedic ages in accordance with the scriptures; marriage is essential for women, not for men. The Rig-Veda mentions about the social cum religious responsibilities and obligations of marriage.

The books Monusmriti and Arthashastra mentioned about eight methods of Hindu marriage. These were: Brahma, Daiba, Aryan, Projapatya, Asur, Rakshash, Poishach and Gandharva; among these, the 'Brahma-marriage' was the most accepted one. In the book Daybhag, Jeemutbahan mentioned that Brahma, Daiba, Aryan, Projapatya and Gandharva marriages were flawless. According to scriptures, marriage within the same Varna was the common rule. Although this was the best practice, Monu gave Brahmins the right of marriage with three lower Varna in addition to their own.

According to the dictums of Hindu scriptures as well as Kautilya, reproduction was the main job of women. According to scriptures, a husband can remarry if wife is incapable to deliver any child within eight years of marriage. If the wife delivers only female offspring within ten years and only dead male offspring within twelve years, the husband can remarry for getting a son. Monu also held the same view: 'Women have been created for reproduction'.

In reality, all cultures have their own theories regarding the emergence and necessity of marriage. But on the question of advantages or disadvantages of marriage, the theorists hold the view that it makes the women mothers and mothers have much more responsibility towards children than fathers.

In ancient Bengal, taking one wife was the norm of the society; but there were exceptions as well. According to the religion of Islam, marriage is a legal, social and religious stipulation. In Islam, marriage means a socially recognised contract determined by religion. A relationship is established between a male and a female based on this contract and their conjugal life starts in this way.

The amount of dowry (Mohrana) to be given to the bride by the groom has to be mentioned in the Muslim marriage contract (known as 'Kabin-nama'). The amount of money given by husband to wife is called Denmohar. Instantaneous payment of Denmohar is compulsory for husband, although the wives can voluntarily pardon the husband from this obligation or can give permission for deferring the payment. According to Muslim law, Denmohar is a special right of wives. The fixation of Denmohar is dependent on the socio-economic status of brides and grooms. The wives can demand the money at any time and it is compulsory for the husbands to make the payment. But this stipulation is a mere formality; the wives seldom demand Denmohar and in practice it is now rarely paid. It is considered as an indicator of social wealth. The amount is usually divided into two parts: cash and receivable. The amount declared as cash is usually paid for the ornaments given as gift by the groom's side. The remaining part is paid later on or when the wife is separated from husband after divorce. It is a social tradition.

The dowry tradition in marriage is linked to the social system. Dowry in marriages is an accepted norm in Hindu religion. In the 'Charyapada', acceptance of dowry by the groom's side has been described. Consequently, the system of giving marriage-money seems to be an ancient one. The tradition of dowry and marriage-money has taken a concrete shape after evolving over time in the Bengalee Hindu and Muslim societies. At present, dowry is a widespread social malady. Child marriage was prevalent among the Hindu families of Bengal since the ancient era. In the Hindu society, it was considered a religious duty to marry off children, especially girls before their attainment of puberty. The framer of Hindu law in ancient India Monu stipulated that a 30 year old male should marry a 12 year old girl; a 24 year old male should marry a 8 year old girl; otherwise, religious prescription would be violated. Monu also prescribed that if the daughter was not married within three years of her attaining puberty, there would be no bar to the girl selecting her own groom.

One of the notable features of the movement, which built up in British India during the 19th century, was opposition to child marriage. Awareness against child marriage was created since the middle of the 19th century. When the Hindu Marriage Act was passed in 1872, the minimum age for marriage of girls was fixed at 14 years while that of boys 18 years. The 1921 census mentioned the average age of marriage for girls as 12 years and that for boys as 13 years. The Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed in 1929. According to this law, marriage of girls below the age of 14 years and that of boys below the age of 18 years was a punishable offence.

Polygamy was in vogue in this country since the ancient times. Proof of this is obtained from the explanations of Jimootbahan as well as the stone inscriptions. According to scriptures, the DAShmins could take four wives, the kshatriyas three wives and the vaishyas two wives. Polygamy by males not only received scriptural approval, it also became a practice in real life. A principal reason for lack of peace in the conjugal lives of women since ancient times has been the existence of other wives in the same household. The Kings could marry as many as they liked in accordance with religious prescriptions. The scriptures supported hundreds of marriages by males. Those same scriptural provisions also strictly prohibited the taking of more than one husband by a woman. The principal exponent of Hindu religious scripture Monu had stipulated the provision of one husband for women and asked them to maintain their devotion when the husbands had immoral character. Devotion towards husband was considered as the ultimate religion of a virtuous wife.

The 'Koulinya' (aristocracy) tradition introduced by Ballal Sena during the12th century gradually digressed from the religious objectives and became a kind of marriage-business. There was arrangement for keeping many wives by a Hindu 'Kulin' (aristocrat) male. This tradition took the shape of a terrible social malady towards the end of 18th century and the beginning of 19th century. During the 19th century, the 'Kulin' merchants expected one-time marriage-money and additional money on various occasions later on. They did not sit, bathe or eat, not even talked to wife at father-in-law's house without getting 'Kul-maryada' or some money. The in-laws and other relatives tried their best to please him when the 'Kulin' son-in-law came to visit them after a long time. The husband used to demand money from wife even before going to bed at night on the occasion of their auspicious encounter.

The 'Niqah' marriage system of Muslims has been mentioned in medieval Bangla literature, such as Chandimangal. There was widespread practice of polygamy among Muslims even during the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century. The affluent class of Muslims used to have more than one wife. However, apart from the 'Kulins', polygamy was not in vogue in the Hindu society.

During the British rule, the educated and genteel Muslim class started to hold a negative view about polygamy after becoming influenced by the Western outlook. Gradually, polygamy became very rare among the middle class people and the one-marriage norm became established as an ideal. The 1901 census showed that examples of second wives were very rare except for rich Muslims. The Family Law Ordinance of 1961 was a milestone in this regard. It attempted to control the tendency of polygamy among men. The rate of second marriages started to decline after the provision of seeking permission of first wife for second marriage was incorporated in the family law. At present, polygamy is very rare among the higher classes of society and can be observed only among lower classes.

The Hindu marriage is a religious, ritualistic and spiritual matter and no written document is needed for this to happen. The formalities of marriage continue for a few days in Hindu families. According to Bhabadeva, the blood relatives of the bride from the father's side carry out the initial tasks of marriage. Among the eight categories of marriage, the 'Brahma-marriage' has been the most acceptable among the Hindus. The Mangalik rituals described in the Rig-Veda and Atharva-Veda are still followed. The Mangalik rituals from the beginning till the end included: Shubha-drishti, Malya-dan, Mantra-path, Yagya-sampadan, Kannya-dan, Pani-grahan, Agni-pradakshin, Saptapadi-gaman and Swasti-bachan.

The practice of examining the horoscopes of brides and grooms is still in vogue in Hindu society. Even if there is no objection on other counts, lack of synchronisation on account of horoscope halts any progress in matrimonial negotiations. The practice of marrying off children based on horoscopic credential was also prevalent in Muslim society because of external influence. The programme which finalises any matrimonial deal before marriage in Hindu society is called 'Ashirvad'. If the groom or bride is chosen, then the deal is finalised by presenting ring or money. Representatives from both sides finalise the marriage in the presence of a priest with new mat, writing-copy and pen. This is often termed as 'Patipatra' or 'Mangalacharan'. It mentions the date and time of marriage as well as debts and receivables. The day preceding the date of marriage is called 'Odhibash'. The bride and groom have to perform 'Puja' on that day and take food at midnight with five items, wearing new dresses and ornaments. There are similar arrangements for 'Odhibash' for both the bride and groom. The date of marriage is usually set by determining the auspicious moment from the Hindu 'Panjika' (calendar) after analysing the horoscopes of bride and groom.

On the day of marriage, the bride and groom take bath with 'gila' (seed of a leguminous plant), sandalwood, raw turmeric, milk, butter, honey and pond water. Both the bride and groom have to keep their fast until the formalities of marriage are completed. It is observed in most cases that 'Konyadan' or the hand-over of the bride takes place after midnight. The date of marriage is followed by the 'Basi-vivaha'. Various programmes also take place on this day as well. The priest makes the bride and groom utter 'Mantras' on this day as well. The most notable among the programmes is a game of hide and seek involving ring with flower petals floating on water or milk that fills a small pond. Food prepared by the bride is consumed the next day, which is usually known as the 'Bou-Bhat'. There was another programme called 'Punar-vivaha in Hindu society when child marriage was in existence. This programme used to take place after the first menstruation of the bride following marriage, if that had not occurred earlier on.

Sweeping domination of males in conjugal life has been observed in 19th century families. The patriarchal society imposes certain rules in conjugal life, such as: husband is the master and god in this material world, he has to be shown unquestionable devotion by the wife, etc. The 'Sanatan' (traditional) marriage was not only between two individuals, its importance extended to the families of both husband and wife. The girl was married not only to a person, but to his family as a whole. It was not sufficient for a girl to satisfy the husband alone; she had to satisfy everybody in the family. The responsibility of the female was to please all family-members.

Although the wife is accepted as the better half after uttering the Mantra during the marriage ceremony, her getting that status in conjugal life is a rarity. A picture of what the relationship was between husband and wife in Bengalee families at the beginning of 19th century can be obtained from an article (1819) titled 'Sahamaran Bishaye Probartak O Nibartaker Ditiya Sambadey' written by raja rammohun roy (1774-1833). He wrote: 'The wife is recognised as the better half during marriage, but she is treated as something worse than an animal; almost all wives undertake servitude in their husbands' houses, that is, they do all work including cleaning the house early at dawn in all seasons, washing the plates, repairing the floors etc; and she does the job of a cook day and night without any salary, that is, she has to cook and serve food for husband, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brothers and friends of husband routinely at all times; if there is any lapse in cooking or serving, then she is reprimanded by the husband, mother-in-law, brother-in-laws etc; the wives tolerate this as well out of fear of religion; and after everybody finishes eating, whatever little is left, whether the curry is fit for consumption or not, she eats those with contentment and passes her days like this; ...she collects water from the pond or river in the afternoon, prepares bed for all, which is the job of a servant, does even that, 'but he engages in adultery, in full knowledge of the wife and in her full view and does not talk with her in a single day of the month.'

Due to the emergence of the middle class and the flourishing of the 'Brahma' religion during the 19th century, new values were generated regarding the position of women in society. The new principles and ideals were closely intertwined with the emergence of the middle-class and the flourishing of English education cum Brahma religion. A change was initiated in the mental outlook of the Bengalee bhadralok (gentlemen), which was inspired by the new education and ideology. In the second half of the 19th century, a new trend of sanctity and ethics developed due to the spread of education and the Brahma movement. As a result, new family values and consciousness were generated among the middle class. The growth of the middle class led to the process of developing the family equations, marriage system and the relations between men and women. Ethics and morality were added to this.

Theoretically speaking, according to the Sharia law for Muslims, any one among husband and wife can take the decision to divorce voluntarily, if one of them is unable to discharge conjugal responsibilities. The muslim family law ordinance, 1961 has defined the mutual obligations of husbands and wives; as a result, numerous liabilities and rights of husbands and wives got a legal foundation. [Bilkis Rahman]